As the world looked on in horror as Russia invaded Ukraine in February, some experts cautiously predicted that a dash to ditch Russian oil and gas could accelerate the green transition. In the place of Russian fossil fuels, some argued that governments would invest in cheap renewable energy that could be upscaled at pace.
The effects of Russia’s invasion are ongoing and complex, of course, but in many places, the opposite seems to have happened. Indeed, in the last few weeks we’ve seen rapid rises in the price of coal, oil and gas. The fossil fuel industry – determined to never let a good crisis go to waste – has been lobbying governments hard. “The world must wean itself off Russian hydrocarbons”, Boris Johnson recently proclaimed, and “abandon the phobia of our own hydrocarbons”. What the prime minister is talking about is oil fields draped in the union jack. “Secure energy made in Britain, for Britain”.
Jacob Rees-Mogg has gone one step further. The Brexit minister wants the government to extract “every last drop of oil” from the North Sea. “2050 is a long way off… we’re not trying to become net zero tomorrow”, he has reasoned. But while 2050 may feel distant for a man still stranded in the sixteenth century, this is, needless to say, not how energy policy works. It takes decades to open a new oil field, during which time the UK has to reduce its emissions to zero.
Sure enough, as of last week, the government has now ordered more drilling in the North Sea. This decision, part of the hastily compiled Energy Security Strategy, destroys any lingering hope of the UK meeting its climate targets. In fact, the strategy – which is less of a strategy and more of a press release – makes no mention of climate change whatsoever.
The fact is that despite much hullabaloo, the government has abandoned its plans to turbocharge the renewable energy sector. It’s offering nothing new on energy efficiency, energy saving, or energy demand reduction, and nothing that will alleviate the cost of living crisis. For a while, it looked like it might invest in a number of onshore wind farms, until a group of rebellious Tory ministers decided that wind turbines were unbearable “eyesores” that couldn’t be tolerated. Let us hope, for their sake, that the breakdown of the natural world will at least be aesthetically pleasing.
What’s going on here is plain to see: our leaders are using the war in Ukraine to justify their addiction to fossil fuels. They’re not the only ones. Fossil fuel executives used a recent US congressional hearing to ask for more drilling permits. “Energy security is national security”, said the CEO of Chevron, “and maintaining American leadership is important for the world”. Indeed, the war has quickly been folded into rightwing talking points, caught between the “criminal enterprise” of Russian oil and the “supply chains that are captured by the Chinese in connection with renewables”. One Republican congressman even claimed that cancelling the controversial Keystone pipeline had emboldened Vladimir Putin, and that investing in renewables “plays directly into China’s goal of world hegemony”.
The timing couldn’t be worse. Last week the IPCC published a landmark report on climate mitigation. In it, lead author Professor Jim Skea tells us that “if there is no advance in the kind of pledges that countries are making, then we may well have to conclude that 1.5C is gone”.
There is plenty to disagree with in the 2,913 pages of the report – and a lot that has been deliberately left out. But the overall message is inarguable. “Investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure is moral and economic madness”, said UN secretary general António Guterres, speaking at the launch of the report. “Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals, but the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels”.
But while bleak, the report is also surprisingly motivating. We already have the solutions to tackle the crisis: the report points to global consumption patterns and inequality as key drivers of the crisis, highlights the importance of a just transition, and gestures towards the need for deep economic and structural changes. But we have no time to waste.
So how should climate activists respond to the war in Ukraine? In the days before the invasion, Extinction Rebellion activists in Ukraine made a demand of the rest of the movement: “Each responsible person can and should impose sanctions against Putin’s regime”. This is a helpful prompt. We must resist any attempts to increase fossil fuel production, blocking roads and shutting down oil refineries. We must organise mass strikes. We must amplify calls for a global Green New Deal. The struggle, in many ways, is the same as it ever was. Don’t mourn – organise.
Sam Knights is a writer, actor and climate activist.